College students struggle during online fall term, many landing on probation


Eric Henry

A student walks along the Quad, located in Lincoln Park.

Alik Schier has trouble viewing his college classes as what they are: school.

 “I know I’ve got to do class, but it’s like — camera off, mic off, taking notes and then ‘bye!’” the DePaul freshman said, slamming an imaginary laptop.

 Schier is just one of 19.6 million American college students who plunged into online schooling last spring when the Covid-19 pandemic began infecting millions, decimating normal everyday life. A year later, the effects that those changes have had on students are becoming apparent.

 “Online school is one of the most challenging experiences, especially when starting a completely new format of schooling in general,” said Austin Glass, a freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “I don’t know the expectations other than just get work done, and it’s honestly stressful when that becomes my entire identity at the school. I feel like success has been reduced completely to turning in assignments and attending class, and I can’t even say if I’m really learning anything or just doing assignments.”

 A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that 71 percent of college students reported increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, 89 percent indicated difficulty concentrating and 82 percent indicated concern over their academic performance.

 These and other circumstances have led some to perform poorly in their classes.

 According to an internal email sent to DePaul faculty in January by interim Provost Salma Ghanem, there were 750 undergraduate students placed on probation after fall quarter 2020 — an increase of roughly a third compared to previous years’ data. 

Of first-year students alone, 339 students were placed on academic probation after their first quarter at DePaul this fall — an increase of nearly 50 percent from previous years’ data. In 2019, 179 first-year students were placed on probation after fall quarter, and the year prior, 153 students were placed on probation at that time.

 “Data from fall quarter supports anecdotal reports of classes in which many students actively engaged and thrived, but more than the usual number of students ‘disappeared’ at some point in the quarter — whether they stopped showing up to class, stopped participating in assignments, didn’t turn in assignments, or any combination thereof,” Ghanem said in the email.


The data is particularly concerning given its broader implications for the students on probation.

 “Students who go on probation are less likely to graduate at all,” Ghanem wrote in the email, a claim backed up by studies. “So this is a moment when, like St. Vincent, we ask, ‘what is to be done?’’’

 While DePaul students are not unique in their academic struggles, more of them have been placed on academic probation than at other Illinois universities.

 A public records request revealed that 4.7 percent of undergraduate students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and 1.5 percent of students at University of Illinois Chicago were on academic probation in fall 2020. About 5.3 percent of DePaul’s 14,145 undergraduate students were placed on academic probation fall quarter.

A number of first-year students on probation — 128 fewer at UIUC and 445 fewer at UIC — while DePaul saw an increase of 160 first-year students placed on probation.

 Caryn Chaden, DePaul’s associate provost for student success and accreditation, said the university takes the issue seriously.

 “For students on probation, the colleges have an extensive process for working with students directly to help them improve their subsequent grades and raise their cumulative GPAs above the 2.0 cut-off for probation,” Chaden said in an email.

 “In addition, the university did a great deal of work to try to ensure that fewer students go on probation after winter quarter,” she added, referring to Ghanem’s email detailed above which also encouraged professors to flag students who might be struggling more than others early on.

 Chaden said those measures have been a success, as more faculty raised flags or referred students to the writing center and library earlier in the quarter than in previous terms. 

 But not all students are struggling in strictly academic ways.

 “I don’t think that many schools really have taken in account the mental toll this takes on students,” Glass said.

 Fatima Zaidi, a DePaul senior, knows this firsthand.

 At the beginning of the year, several of Zaidi’s family members died from terminal illnesses and her father was diagnosed with Covid-19. As an only child, she’s been the only immediate support system for her parents as their family has grappled with these losses, leaving her little time for schoolwork.

 “I am a growing, young adult who has such a heavy weight on my shoulders right now that I’m not even sure where to begin to help myself mentally,” Zaidi said. “I have considered dropping out of school; I look at successful people and think ‘will I even achieve that?’ At times, I have even had insidious thoughts that maybe, removing myself from this world will be the easier option that no one seems to understand.”

“I’ve lost confidence within myself as a student,” she continued. “I’ve lost confidence and that drive I had for my passions. I, as a person, have plummeted trying to be in good academic standing at this institution during the past year.”

 Still, the switch to online schooling wasn’t detrimental to all.

 In fact, a number of students performed better in the fall quarter of 2020 than in previous fall quarters. The message from Ghanem indicated that while the quarter brought an increase in F, FX and IN grades, there was also an increase in grades A and A- compared to past fall quarters.

 “I don’t feel like I’m struggling,” Schier said. “But I don’t feel like I’m being lifted up, either. I’m kind of just there.”